Robben Island

7 Sep

For 400 years, Robben Island, 12 kilometres from Cape Town across Table Bay, was a place of banishment, exile, isolation, heartache and imprisonment. It was on Robben Island that rulers sent those regarded as political troublemakers, social outcasts and the unwanted of society including lepers and the mentally ill.

During apartheid and in the 1960s, Robben Island became internationally known for its institutional brutality. The duty of those who ran Robben Island and the Robben Island prison was to isolate opponents of apartheid and to crush their spirit. Some freedom fighters spent more than a quarter of a century in prison on Robben Island for their beliefs. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison, most of them here.

Those imprisoned on the Island succeeded on a psychological and political level in turning a prison ‘hell-hole’ into a symbol of freedom and personal liberation.

A Past Political Prisoner

Our guide, and every guide, for the tour of Robben Island is a past political prisoner.  Many of these men, and women, were young protesters against apartheid. They were held in prison for decades. Inside the prison they joined together in a rebellion of the spirit.

(To give you an idea of the kind of conditions political prisoners lived under, their cells were turned into dog pens

after apartheid prisoner release in the late 1980s and 90s.)

Future leaders like South Africa’s first democratic President, Nelson Rohilahla Mandela,and the founding leader of the Pan Africanist Congress, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, were all imprisoned on Robben Island.  Sobukwe was held in solitary confinement for many years.

Many prisoners were forced to do hard labor in the limestone quarry on the island. Many died and the ones who survived had permanent damage like blindness from the limestone dust.

Robben Island, South Africa

Overcoming opposition from the prison authorities, prisoners on Robben Island starting in the late 1960s, were able to organise sporting events, political debates and educational programmes, and to assert their right to be treated as human beings, with dignity and equality.

They were able to help the country establish the foundations of South Africa’s modern democracy.

For an American like me, born in freedom with the guarantees of the U.S. Constitution, the inhumanity of apartheid prisoners is abhorrent. As I walked around this place I more clearly understood the “new” South Africa. And the sense that for many South Africans a new life started in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was elected the first Democratic President in a free public election.

New South African flag

Robben Island has come to symbolise, not only for South Africa  but also for the entire world, the triumph of the human spirit over enormous hardship and adversity.

One Response to “Robben Island”

  1. Ursula Freer September 7, 2012 at 4:57 am #

    Thanks for the post. It’s hard to believe that this was going on not too far back in time and is still happening in many areas of our world.

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